Dealing with data caps

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Reader Robert Cullers, like many people, faces the bitter realities of streaming media. He writes:

You keep telling us how to use the Internet for entertainment, which results in more and more usage. I suddenly find that my provider has imposed a monthly data limit of 250GB. Three weeks into the month and I’m about 20 percent over this limit. Much of our use is streaming movies from Netflix although there are a number of other downloads like that of the entire Adobe suite. How can we more efficiently use the Internet since it may soon be impossible to download or upload many large files if these limits are rigorously enforced?

I wish I could simply reply “Use a different provider that doesn’t impose data caps” but that’s largely unrealistic if you want the kind of lightning-fast connections you can get from cable where an unmetered fiber connection isn’t available. Though not termed “monopolies” by those who should be watching over these things, that’s exactly the kind of stranglehold cable companies such as Comcast, Time-Warner, and Cox have in many markets. They each have data caps, which they claim are reasonable for all but the most extreme data hogs. But in the age of media streaming services and software distributed via download this is nonsense. The cynical suggest these companies impose caps simply to protect their media divisions.

Some have abandoned the “exceed XGB and you’re cut off” policies and have instead chosen to charge you for additional usage above the cap. And most now offer tiered services where the more you pay each month, the higher the data cap. But there are a few things you can do on your end to reduce data usage and avoid higher-priced plans and overage charges.

If Netflix streaming is burning up your data plan, consider choosing a lower quality stream, which consumes less data. You can do that by visiting Netflix’s Manage Video Quality page. Here you can choose from among three settings: Good Quality (which uses up to 0.3GB per hour), Better Quality (0.7GB per hour), and Best Quality (up to 1GB for standard definition or up to 2.3GB for HD per hour). Yes, picture quality will suffer, but for some types of content—old movies and TV shows, for instance—you may be able to live with it.

Dial down Netflix quality to consume less data

You can do the same sort of thing with iTunes movie and TV shows. Although iTunes defaults to HD downloads, you can choose less data-intensive (and less expensive) standard definition versions.

In many cases, the cable company that provides your Internet connection additionally handles your television service. It’s possible that you can get some of this content via the cable company’s on-demand services. And, if not, having a DVR that keeps an eye out for movies and TV shows you’d otherwise stream over Netflix isn’t a bad idea. Program it correctly and you can collect a rich backlog of TV shows and movies and so don’t need to turn to Netflix as often.

For large software downloads you might consider grabbing them on someone else’s dime—particularly if you work for the kind of generous company that has bandwidth to spare and doesn’t mind if you grab a couple of gigabytes of data and shove it on to a USB stick during your lunch break. Coffee houses aren’t so good for this kind of thing as their connections are generally pretty slow (and only get slower when many people are sharing a connection to do this kind of thing).

Finally, consider keeping a copy of the Mountain Lion installer. By default, when you download and install Mountain Lion, the original installer file is deleted. This means that if you want to reinstall Mountain Lion or install it on another Mac you own, you have to download it again, which hacks around 4GB out of your monthly data allotment. Download it the one time and move it out of the Applications folder. When you do this and install OS X, the installer will remain on your hard drive.

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